Chapter 9: Christianity and the Race Problem
We come now to one of the most baffling and difficult of all contemporary problems. In the world scene, questions of race and color mingle with those of national status and of economic abundance and poverty to create great restlessness and tension. In our own land, the violent reactions evoked by the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954, that segregation in the public schools is unconstitutional have revealed how deep are the differences that divide us. Though integration in the schools is accepted more readily in northern states, there is scarcely a community anywhere, North or South, that does not show the marks of racial cleavage in segregated housing, employment, and social attitudes.
Even in churches this virus is widely prevalent. It was not a theological, but a racial, issue that split the Methodist Church in 1844 and kept it in sectional units for almost a hundred years, with the breach only partially healed by the formula of union in 1939. The northern and southern Presbyterians and Baptists are still separated with race in the background, though with important theological differences in addition to the racial attitudes that have prevailed in Methodism. Yet it is the existence not of separate denominations, but of segregation within virtually every denomination, that is the most telling evidence of the depth of the problem. This separateness, whether or not required by organizational structures, is everywhere present. One has but to enter almost any church and look around to discover it.
Paradoxically, it is this issue among all our major social problems on which there is the greatest agreement in principle. Representative church bodies have again and again called for a “nonsegregated church In a nonsegregated society.” The Federal Council of Churches in 1946 declared:
The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America renounces the pattern of segregation in race relations as unnecessary and undesirable and a violation of the gospel of love and brotherhood. Having taken this action the Federal Council requests its constituent communions to do likewise.1
Similar resolutions, including endorsement of the Supreme Court decision, have been passed by the churches again and again. One of the most significant of these is the affirmation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1956 in view of the fact that this is the largest southern denomination and its members are widely involved in current tensions:
We recognize the fact that this Supreme Court decision is in harmony with the constitutional guarantee of equal freedom to all citizens and with the Christian principles of equal justice and love for all men. . . . [We urge our] people and all Christians to conduct themselves in this period of adjustment in the spirit of Christ.2
Comparable declarations have been made by other churches even in those areas where racial tensions are most acute. “Denominational conference statements of the mainline Protestant churches in the South have almost uniformly affirmed the incompatibility of segregation with Christian principles and the need for revision of local practice.” 3
To cite one more statement from an inclusive perspective, the World Council of Churches at Evanston in 1954 issued an extraordinarily forward-looking statement on race relations which contains these words:
When we are given Christian insight the whole pattern of racial discrimination is seen as an unutterable offence against God, to be endured no longer, so that the very stones cry out. In such moments we understand more fully the meaning of the gospel, and the duty of both Church and Christian.
The skeptic is prone to say that the churches make these “ringing resolutions,” yet hypocritically disregard them. That there is wide disregard is evident, but it cannot be charged simply to hypocrisy. The issues are complex, and we must attempt to sort out some of the interwoven strands that constitute the ugly net of race prejudice.
1. Biblical foundations
As has been done in other chapters, let us take a look at the biblical foundations of the Christian view. This can be brief, for the directives are unequivocal.
In the first chapter of Genesis it is written,
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let
them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (1:26-27.)
There is no suggestion here of a white God, or even of a Semitic God. Nor is there any intimation that some who are thus to “have dominion” are to constitute a dominant race while others do the menial tasks of mankind. Even though Negroes be assumed to be the descendants of Ham, the Jews of Shem, and the Aryans of Japheth — a view which anthropologists discredit — all are equally the Sons of Adam and made in the divine image. There is not a little religious exclusiveness in the history of the Hebrews as it is recorded in the Old Testament, and this gave rise to a Jewish particularism which the greater prophets had to condemn as they stressed the love of God for all men.4 Yet the doctrine of creation that is the common heritage of Jewish and Christian faith asserts unequivocally the unity of mankind and leaves no standing ground for racial exclusiveness.
In the New Testament this becomes unmistakable. The equality of all persons before God was basic to the outlook of Jesus. The parable of the good Samaritan is the most dramatic challenge to racial exclusiveness, but it appears again and again in Jesus’ own service to human need regardless of racial or national backgrounds and in his portrayal of the conditions of entrance into the Kingdom. In the last judgment scene, it is not one’s Jewish ancestry but care for the hungry and thirsty, for the naked, sick, and imprisoned, that will determine one’s place (Matt. 25:31-46). In the great consummation, “men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). Jesus did not hesitate to condemn the shallow self-confidence of those who trusted in their Jewish prerogatives, or to commend the faith of a Roman centurion as being superior to theirs (Matt. 23; 8:10-13). Had Jesus been willing to be neutral toward Jewish exclusiveness for fear of causing trouble, he might have escaped crucifixion but he would not have been our Lord.
In the early Church, the contest between Jewish exclusiveness and Christian universalism was at first sharp, but the latter won out to become the settled policy. The decision recorded in Acts 15:19-21 thereby becomes a watershed in the history of the Church. Peter’s vision (Acts 10) and its bearing on the acceptance of the Roman centurion Cornelius into Christian fellowship bears directly on the issue of segregated churches today, and the truth could hardly be more forcefully put than in Peter’s words that clinch the matter, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality” (v. 34). Paul repeatedly declared that “all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Rom. 3:9), but that Christ died for the redemption of all, and has reconciled us to God and to one another. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28.) No greater charter of race equality need be cited than that found in Ephesians, “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14).
But why multiply citations? The record is so clear that almost any Christian will admit that in principle race prejudice is wrong. But what of our practice?
2. The causes of race prejudice
Race prejudice is a pervasive human phenomenon. Yet clearly it is not inborn. Colored and white children will play together when permitted to do so with full friendliness. On the street where I live there is also a Negro physician and his fine family, and it is an attractive sight to see these children playing with the white children of the neighborhood. Little Gentiles get along very well with the little Jews, or at least, as well as with other little Gentiles. It is when frightened parents erect prohibitions that the seeds of prejudice are planted. These in most cases are planted early and grow luxuriously.
By the time of adolescence, unless positive steps are taken to counteract it, segregation has emerged as a dominant pattern. So powerful are the drives toward conformity in high school and college years that it is not uncommon to find an intense and irrational cruelty toward those of other races. On the other hand, young people are more apt than their elders to break through the patterns of racial discrimination if there are democratic and Christian influences upon their thinking and friendly group contacts are possible with those of another race. Where segregation is removed in practice, its justification in principle rapidly subsides.
Confront an adult with the fact of his race prejudice, and he will do one of three things. He will deny it, he will admit it but admit also that it is irrational, or he will begin to rationalize his attitudes. The rationalizations will usually take the form of words about being different from “our kind of people”; about inferior and superior races; about dirt and smells, or dishonesty and treachery and the “yellow peril”; about the danger of intermarriage; about how those of other races are “creeping up on us” and “don’t know their place.” When sifted out these rationalizations indicate that psychological, cultural, social, nationalistic, and economic factors have been superimposed upon and confused with biological facts. As a result, we have a “color caste” of which the roots are not primarily to be found in biological differences, but with its evil effects irrationally transferred to great groups loosely designated as racial.
Race is a most ambiguous term, in which many national, geographical, cultural, and linguistic elements are mixed. Though race is sometimes correctly designated by basic biological types as Caucasian, Mongolian, or Negroid, in practice it is more often indicated by color, as black, white, red, yellow, or brown; or by nationality, as Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Mexican; or by geographical origin, as Oriental, Asiatic, European, African; or by a combination of ethnic, national, and geographical factors, as Nordic, Teutonic, Slavic, Latin American, French Canadian. A particular problem is posed by an attempt to classify the Jews, for while they are a Semitic people who have had relatively little racial intermixture through the centuries, it is an ever-present problem as to whether the terms “Jew” and “Jewish” refer mainly to a race or to a religion.
Such adjectives give evidence that the race problem is never wholly a matter of biological distinction and stratification. Racial intermixtures have produced some very white-skinned Negroes with blue eyes and fair hair, yet the product of such a union remains a Negro.5 Race as the term is commonly used designates very nearly what the Germans call Volk — a group sharing a common cultural tradition, whether of achievement or servitude, with some measure of national, geographical, and biological affinity. Our language being what it is, we must use the term “race” in spite of its looseness.
Racial prejudice is, first of all, a psychological factor, rooting in collective egotism and pride and the pervasive human tendency to dislike the different. Though an ancient evil, it began to receive intellectual defense more recently than most evils, for it was only a century ago that Count Gobineau published in French his four-volume Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, in which he contended that color of skin determines mental and spiritual differences, and that mixture of blood produces degeneracy and the fall of civilizations. There was little, if any, racial discrimination in the early or medieval Church, the conditions of membership and fellowship being determined by faith in Jesus Christ and fidelity to the ordinances of his church. “Race and color did not count in the early existence of the Protestant church. It was when modern Western imperialism began to explore and exploit the colored peoples of Africa, Asia and America that the beginning of segregation and discrimination based on color and race was initiated.” 6 Nevertheless, the roots of race prejudice are as old as the human race in the tendency to like those who are like oneself and to dislike those who for any reason, biological or cultural, are different.
Sometimes this psychological dislike of the different is intensified by proximity, again by separation. For example, it is not uncommon for American Christians to be quite concerned to send missionaries to the Negroes of Africa, and to admire greatly Albert Schweitzer’s service to them, and yet to stand rigidly for segregation in one’s own community or church. it is easy for persons in New England to be more “broad-minded” on the matter of racial integration than they would be if they lived in Mississippi. Nevertheless, proximity need not breed tension; it can create fellowship. As we shall observe in noting what the Church can do about racial tension, one of the first steps in overcoming it is to bring people together, both physically and spiritually, so that what seems to be difference can be discovered to be kinship. This calls for a mingling of the races wherever this can be done without fresh outbreaks of animosity, and a sharing of the best in every cultural tradition.
Another form of rationalization, we noted, was the claim of “superior” and “inferior” races. Count Gobineau’s contentions were widely believed until quite recently, and are still bandied about by those who never heard his name. Yet for the past two decades they have been scientifically exploded, and no reputable psychologist or anthropologist now accepts them. In 1938 the American Psychological Association went on record as declaring that there are no innate mental differences among races. In the same year the American Anthropological Association asserted that there is no scientific basis for the biological inheritance of cultural traits, or of any traits implying racial inferiority.7 These judgments have been corroborated by medical science in reference to the Negro blood bank by declaring that there is no difference in the blood of colored and white persons, thus reinforcing the biblical word that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men” (K.J.V.) to dwell together.
There are, of course, primitive and advanced groups even as there are stupid and highly capable individuals within every group. These discernible differences have lent support to the myth of natural inequality. Informed opinion, however, agrees with Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma that there is a vicious circle at this point.8 Denied the cultural, educational, and economic advantages held by others, underprivileged groups tend to remain in this status, as in America the restriction of Negroes to unskilled labor and meager educational facilities has prevented their advancement to positions of leadership comparable with the more privileged. Increasingly in the world scene, as in America, it becomes evident that there are persons of extraordinary ability in every racial group, and the flowering of such talent awaits only the opportunity.
Cultural aversion to those of other races, whether in the form of depreciating their ability or in more offensive matters of name calling and the attaching of uncomplimentary labels, eventuates from the common tendency to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. Some Negroes have grown up in circumstances where they have not learned to bathe; hence it is assumed that all are dirty. Under economic pressure for many centuries, some Jews have developed a tendency to drive a sharp bargain; hence it is assumed that this is a universal racial trait. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and China is held by the Communists; hence nobody from the Orient is to be trusted! The internment and relocation of 110,000 Japanese on the Pacific Coast during the Second World War, not for any acts of disloyalty but simply through a suspicion based on racial identification, was less virulent in its effect than the Nazi destruction of the Jews but equally irrational. The outbreak of violence, intimidation, and the formation of “white citizens’ councils” that has come with the effort to desegregate the schools is a carry-over both from the Negro’s former status as a slave and from the assumption by white persons of the Negro’s general inferiority.
Such hasty generalization cannot be dealt with simply by demonstrating its irrationality. That it is irrational to judge whole peoples by mass standards of approval or disapproval rather than by individual status is certainly true, and needs to be constantly kept in mind. But since this type of judgment is basically a matter of feeling rather than reason, only a change of feeling can correct it. This is why the Christian faith, when it is made vital in terms of the equal worth of all persons to God, is a more effective solvent of ill feeling than argument, even as a sense of sin about race prejudice is a necessary prelude to repentance and change.
This cultural aversion appears in its most potent form in the fear of intermarriage. This is cited again and again as the all-sufficient reason why there must be no social intermingling of the different racial groups, and in particular why the young people must be kept apart not only in schools but in churches. About this two judgments must be passed. The first is that miscegenation ought not to be encouraged. Not because any biological inferiority results from a mixing of racial stocks, but because in the present state of society tensions are more often increased than abated by it, intermarriage is on the whole a step away from the solution of the race problem rather than toward it.
The second judgment is that there is no law of God against such intermarriage, and there ought to be none of the State. The World Council of Churches took a bold and true step when it declared:
While it can find in the Bible no clear justification or condemnation of intermarriage, but only a discussion of the duties of the faithful in marriage with partners of other religions, it cannot approve any law against racial or ethnic intermarriage, for Christian marriage involves primarily a union of two individuals before God which goes beyond the jurisdiction of the state or of culture.
Some intermarriages have produced happy and effective Christian homes; others have not. Here as elsewhere, hasty generalization must be avoided. What can be said with certainty is that the fear of intermarriage, erected as a barrier to social fellowship, does harm and thwarts constructive effort far in excess of the actual justification of such a fear.
Ramifying through all these factors are economic rivalry and a fear of the loss of prestige or power through the influx or advancement of those of other racial stocks. This is evidenced by the fact that in industry, schools, and many other aspects of community life, a racial minority will be tolerated as long as it is a very minor minority. Let the numbers increase, or the positions other than those of unskilled manual labor be taken by those of another race, and there is an outbreak of objection which is easily stirred into violence.
Paradoxically, labor unions have gone further than any other group in America, not excepting the churches, to witness against racial injustice and try to secure equality of treatment. This is probably due chiefly to a certain sense of solidarity in injustice in protest against the dominant white, bourgeois, employing classes. Yet in both labor unions and churches, the official group pronouncements are on a higher level of insight than the actual practices of great numbers of their membership. While the unions exercise a coercive power that the churches cannot, psychological reaction to economic rivalry follows a consistent pattern. Wherever status is touched or income is jeopardized, the liberality of attitudes tends to shrink and rationalizations of discrimination to emerge.
Racial and cultural are mixed with national factors to make the term “foreigner” one of opprobrium. This is evident in the tendency to speak of the Italians, Mexicans, French Canadians, or Irish as a separate racial stock, the degree of acceptance even in the “melting pot” of democratic America being by no means certain. In the Old Testament the Jews drew tight lines between themselves as the chosen people of God and their neighbors, in the New Testament the “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” and in every culture from the beginning of recorded history to the present there are evidences of antipathy between the “in-grout and the “out-group.” Robert P. Tristram Coffin in a whimsical but nevertheless serious poem has represented the men of Ur and Akkad as telling why they do not like each other:
The Man of Akkad:
The men of Ur have heads too round.
They have to build themselves a mound
To reach their god. Their toes turn in,
They have no hair upon their chin.
They are not men. Their women wear
The finer wool and build their hair
High as towers in their pride,
The men go meekly dressed in hide.
They eat the fat part of their goats,
Their speech is low down in their throats.
To them the only proper word
Is the thin edge of a sword.
The Man of Ur:
The men of Akkad have no faces.
Their curled beards are the nesting places
Of the vermin and the flea.
They turn their toes out wantonly.
Their heads are squeezed too long for brains,
They have to ask their gods for rains.
They beat their wives, they wear soft clothes,
Their speech is high and through the nose,
Their noses are as great as plows,
They eat the udders of their cows.
The language that will suit them best
Is the arrow through the breast.
Ur and Akkad are dead sands,
But they have sons in living lands.9
Thus far we have been noting the merging of race prejudice with cultural, economic, and political antipathies in the domestic scene. Yet no informed person needs to be told that racism is a world-wide phenomenon and that in our interdependent world, racial antipathies anywhere endanger the security and welfare of persons everywhere.
Let us look, therefore, somewhat more briefly at the effects of race prejudice.
3. Effects of race prejudice
Racism imperils the peace of the world. Not race, which in the order of nature has been established by God that there may be variety among his children, but racism. Racism is the perversion of this variety, the injection of attitudes of domination, superiority, and enmity where there ought to be fellowship within this diversity. Since this is a moral universe, racism cannot continue without injury and peril to all — to those who dominate as well as to those who suffer from the domination of others.
In the past the major wars have been fought between those of Caucasian stock. The colored peoples of the earth, though outnumbering the white peoples two to one, have lacked not only the incentive of hope of victory, but the economic resources and the technical skills by which massive conflicts could be waged. In the past two decades this situation has changed radically. Many millions of persons formerly in colonial status have come to a new nationhood since the Second World War — India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, and South Viet-Nam, with at least nominal freedom also in North Korea and Viet Minh. Others feel the ferment of the possibility of both political freedom and release from hunger, and will no longer accept domination complacently. In two of the most troubled areas of the earth, South Africa and the Middle East, racial conflict and tension are at an all-time high, with no hope of any immediate abatement.
There is no evidence that any of the peoples just mentioned desire, or will press for, world conquest. There is, however, another power in Eastern Europe that apparently does desire world domination and with great skill manipulates the longings of these people for racial equality, economic subsistence, and political freedom. If they do not receive support from the West in these legitimate aspirations, they will look to the East to get it. The result could be a third world war and global destruction.
It cannot be said that there is complete racial equality within Communism, for Jews have been discriminated against in Soviet Russia as elsewhere. Yet there is little doubt that race equality is practiced further under Communism than is general in the democracies of the West, and it is certain that our racial inequalities, though exaggerated, are a chief weapon in the psychological war against us.
I make no claim to being a prophet. Yet in 1944, when Russia was still generally viewed as a faithful ally, I wrote these words:
Let us rejoice heartily that there is race equality anywhere, whether under a Christian or Communist ideology. But let us beware. When the time comes to make the peace, the suppressed longings of the colored and racially underprivileged peoples of the world, if they do not see freedom in prospect elsewhere, will turn to Russia to get it. The color question cannot fail to be a powerful leverage to enhance the authority of Russia after the war. One may doubt whether Russia is altruistic enough to use this authority to increase the welfare of the world; one cannot doubt that the union of capitalism with race discrimination puts a weapon of incalculable power in the hands of Mr. Stalin.10
Since that time Stalin has passed from the scene and his authority as well, but what he set in motion has not passed away. Since that time also, the emergence of the atomic and hydrogen bombs has vastly increased the peril to the total world that racial conflict might fan to hideously destructive power.
But what of the effects of race discrimination in the immediate, domestic setting?
The effects upon its recipients are so manifold in the form of hurts, frustrations, denials of opportunity, and the continuance of a rankling sense of injustice that I shall make no attempt to catalogue them.
In our own country millions of people especially American Negroes are subjected to discrimination and unequal treatment in educational opportunities, in employment, wages and conditions of work, in access to professional and business opportunities, in housing, in transportation, in the administration of justice and even in the right to vote.11
In recent years some advance steps have been made, as in the opening of Pullman cars and diners to Negroes, elimination of segregation in the armed forces, and the admission of Negroes to some southern state universities. Yet the attempts made to nullify the Supreme Court decision even at the cost of eliminating the public schools and passing acts of open defiance in state legislatures, to say nothing of rioting and violence and the nonviolent but intimidating acts of white citizens’ councils, indicate how long a road there is yet to travel. Not since the Civil War has the internal harmony of the United States been so seriously disturbed.
Not only does race discrimination hurt those who are its recipients, but those who practice it become also its victims. As Benjamin Mays, himself an eminent Negro college president, stated eloquently before the World Council of Churches in Evanston,
Usually the question is: What does discrimination or segregation do to the person segregated, to the disadvantaged person? . . . But we seldom realize what discrimination does to the person who practices it. It scars not only the soul of the segregated but the soul of the segregator as well. When we build fences to keep others out, erect barriers to keep others down, deny to them freedom which we ourselves enjoy and cherish most, we keep ourselves in, hold ourselves down, and the barriers we erect against others become prison bars to our own souls.
A major effect in the domestic scene is what racism does to public respect for the principles of democracy and of Christianity. In both connections there are endless reverberations, which can be touched upon only in barest mention. When one becomes accustomed to perversions of justice with reference to those of another race, these are likely before long not to seem perversions, and the democratic conscience that should be demanding “liberty and justice for all” is dulled into acquiescence. Those on the receiving end of the injustice can scarcely avoid the feeling that democracy is being flouted, and the temptation to flout it in return is strong. Both of these reactions together are responsible for not a little of the domestic unrest and incidence of crime in our society.
In the Church also there is a sheaf of bad effects. The most obvious one, by the continuance of segregation, is to negate the principle of the equality of all men before God, which even the most casual secularist recognizes to be Christian, and thus to bring the Church into disfavor. More subtle effects, however, are found in the thwarting of the growth of Christian personality by denials of opportunity and fellowship that should be open to all, and in the deepening of the sin of moral dullness through all the forms of rationalization that have been outlined.
Only God can judge fully the range and depth of these evil effects. In an issue so complex and so serious, claims of human omniscience are very inappropriate. There is need to be tolerant and understanding, to “judge not, that you be not judged.” Yet there is need also to be clear-sighted and to be firm. To be neutral or acquiescent in conditions so clearly at variance with the Christian gospel is to deny our faith.
4. Proposals for Christian action12
The Church cannot let these conditions continue without action. The security of the world calls for the mitigation of racial tensions through justice. Yet deeper than the demand for security is the obligation of the Christian gospel to increase love in human relations.
In the first place, the Church must understand and proclaim its gospel. Vague generalities about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man have often been spoken which do not cut down through our crust of convention to where the race problem is. We need to recover the insights of Jesus on this question. And one of the most amazing things about Jesus is how he met the racism of his day. Reared in a Jewish tradition that prided itself on being the chosen people of God, living in occupied territory where Roman superiority and Jewish superiority were always in uneasy tension, he lived on a plane that made a Roman centurion say of him, “Truly this was a son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). Jew, Roman, Samaritan, Syrophoenician, were to him equally the children of God. In the presence of human need, his healing knew no bounds.
If we examine the democracy of Jesus — a democracy which he never talked about but always practiced — we discover in it both the fountainhead of our democracy and certain radical challenges. We talk much about the dignity of man. This he did not deny; in fact, he assumed it, but always in the framework of man’s dependence upon God and the obligation to obey God and love one another. His emphasis was not on the claim of personal rights, as so much of ours is, but on the doing of duties. This may well lead to the claiming of rights for others, but such a demand must first be expressed in the acts and attitudes of daily life. These four — divine dependence, mutual obligation stemming from love, sound judgment of human nature, and the practice of brotherhood in daily experience — are the basis of any true democracy. Not until the Church both preaches and practices such Christian democracy will it touch the fringe of the race question.
Second, the Church must put its own house in order. This means the welcome presence of colored Christians in the membership, the worship services, church schools, discussion groups, and social gatherings of the Church. It means the presence of colored persons in the conferences and policy-making bodies of the Church. It means the refusal to permit segregation in the living arrangements connected with church meetings. It means the sharing of the recreational, educational, and hospital facilities of the Church with all who need them. It means the interchange of pulpits between colored and white ministers, and much further advance in what has already been here and there undertaken, an interracial ministry. As qualified persons can be found or trained, there must be interracial teaching, medical, and administrative staffs in the institutions of the Church. In such arrangements there must be equal and nonsegregated living and working conditions, equal pay, equal opportunities of promotion, regardless of color. Differentiation on grounds of contribution and fitness does not justify differentiation on grounds of race. If such a program arouses opposition, as it is likely to, this calls for the tactful but courageous insistence that the house of God is a place of prayer and service for all peoples and the Church of God cannot sanction discrimination at any point.
I am aware that the relatively mild proposals of the preceding sentences, if acted upon, would be revolutionary. Already I hear someone say, “You couldn’t do that in my church!” Have you tried? The ideal of race equality will not arrive all at once. But it will not arrive at all until we stop conforming to prevailing attitudes and practices and give the Church an opportunity to lead in the shaping of community standards. Even conflict, if dealt with in love, can prove a creative experience.
In bringing about such changes, there is particular need to avoid incrimination and self-righteousness and to act upon the basis of true facts and principles, not upon emotional impulse. Race prejudice, we have seen, is basically a matter of emotion, and there can be no effective challenge of it without right counter-emotions. Such depth of concern does not justify unloving attitudes toward or name calling of one’s opponents. “Speaking the truth in love” is a supreme need.
It is easy for one to say this who has not personally felt the sting of race discrimination. Yet the need becomes far more eloquent when it comes from the lips of one who bears the brunt of it, yet without hatred. It was put in words that ought to become classic by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a few hours after his arrest as a leader of passive resistance against segregation in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus lines:
If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.13
The race problem must, for the most part, be met by person to person contacts which create understanding. This calls for more intervisitation and social fellowship, both locally and nationally, and as occasion permits, in the world community. It is hard to remain hostile toward a people whose individuals one has come to know and love. Such fellowship has been one of the major contributions of the ecumenical movement.
In cases of racial discrimination by public agencies within the community, the Church must be willing to stand up and be counted on the side of equality. It must act in co-operation with other community forces if possible, but in any case it must act. Not alone prophetic indictment, but patient mediation, is the function of Christian leaders.
From time to time, political aspects of the question call for action. Among these are the steps to be taken toward desegregation in the schools and universities, the poll-tax issue, the passage of guarantees of fair employment practices, the removal of restrictions in housing and the use of public facilities. Segregation cannot be justified on the ground of “separate but equal” facilities, for what is separate is discriminatory and hence not equal. Though the right next steps to take are not always clear, the principle is, and Christian citizens who take their gospel seriously should lead the way.
Since the race question is a world issue, and not simply a local or national one, education and action as to its world implications are necessary. Support by citizens of such action as will lift the living standards and the human dignity of the millions of underprivileged, nonwhite peoples of the earth is imperative. Congressmen must be made to feel that their constituencies insist upon it.
Finally, the total problem must be lifted into the realm of prayer and worship. We must pray for those of other races; we must be responsive to the awareness that they are praying for us. When one enters truly into the mood of intercession, bitterness departs and fellowship takes its place. It has been the contention of this chapter that the removal of race prejudice is a duty laid upon us by God, and if it is God’s business we are engaged in, we must give God an opening in our souls.
Since it is God’s business, let us not despair. The solution will not come tomorrow, but it will come. In the midst of the walls of opposition erected by men stands Christ, who breaks down the “dividing wall of hostility” that separates us. It is the business of Christians to give him a chance to act.
1. Quoted by John C. Bennett in Christian Ethics and Social Policy (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1946), p. 10 n.
2. The Christian Century, June 23, 1954, p. 759.
3. Waldo Beach in “Storm Warnings from the South,” Christianity and Crisis, March 19, 1956, p. 30.
4. As in Amos 9:7 and the “servant songs” of Isaiah. Cf. Isa. 49:6; 51:4; 52:10; 56:3, 6-8.
5. For very telling evidence of this fact, read A Man Called White (New York: Viking Press, 1948), the life story of a very light-skinned Negro, Walter White, who was long the general secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and one of the outstanding leaders of his race.
6. From an address by Dr. Benjamin Mays at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, III., August 21, 1954.
7. H. A. Wallace, et al., Christian Bases of World Order (New York and Nashville:
Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1943), pp. 104, 107.
8. Ch. 3, sec. 7.
9. Used by permission of the author’s estate.
10. Ibid., pp. 196-97.
11. From the report of the Delaware Conference of the Federal Council of Churches, March, 1942. This statement, though old, puts the issues as succinctly as they can be put.
12. The remainder of this chapter is reprinted with some changes and additions from my article on “The Racial Issue and the Christian Church” in The Church and the New World Mind. Used by permission of the Bethany Press.
13. The New York Times, February 24, 1956.